Getting Over The Thoroughbred Makeover
It was hard to accept the fact that I would not be competing in the Thoroughbred Makeover held October 25 – 28 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. I had worked tirelessly to find the horse that could win, and then I put four months of training and board into said horse before he went lame. But apparently I was not the only one to suffer such fate—nearly 200 of the 500 declared horses never made it to Lexington.
I was planning on riding in the hunter and jumper disciplines on my horse “Johnny Joe” before he fractured a splint bone two months prior to the event and it was over for me. The same thing happened to 30% of the horses that were declared to compete, so I didn’t feel so bad. I was still very interested in what would happen at the Makeover and since I was not going to be there to win it, I decided to volunteer to see things first hand.
The Kentucky Horse Park in itself is something to behold. It has an individual complex for each discipline—hunters, jumpers, dressage, and eventing—and two indoor stadiums for showing, plus every arena features the industry’s best footing, arena, and fence construction. There are 1,500 12×12 stalls and it can host up to four different shows simultaneously. It is located in the heart of horse country with the Keeneland Racetrack, the Fasig-Tipton Auction Complex, and numerous top international breeding operations all a stone’s throw away.
It is hard to describe what went on during the Thoroughbred Makeover. It was a competition, it was a sale, and it was a testimony to the breed. All phases of horse sport; barrel racing, polo, field hunting, freestyle, dressage, eventing, hunters, and jumpers were featured and all of this took place at the same time. Saturday’s finals featured the top three horses in each discipline in the indoor arena and that was the only way you could see all the disciplines at once—it was that overwhelming.
At first I had trouble getting over the practice rounds I witnessed on the day before the show. Time after time, horses were ridden by people who were not prepared and horses that were not suitable for the discipline were being asked to perform. I complained to a bystander and she replied, “Give it a day to sink in. Every horse here is a Thoroughbred. They have only been in training for this for a very short period of their career. It takes time to make a good horse. Talk to me tomorrow and we will see what you think then.” I looked around and it sank in. They came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some were not entered in the correct disciplines because they had not yet found their niche. All of these horses had been on the track within a year of this event. It truly was an incredible showing.
As a volunteer, I was asked to design and set courses for the hunters. This worked out great because I could witness the competition first hand and set a course that I felt was a fair test for the horses. From there I would be able to watch both the hunter and jumper disciplines from a shared pavilion that sat between the two rings. I ended up taking in 70 rounds in the hunter ring and 80 in the jumpers over the course of two days.
The hunters were asked to show in two over fences classes with five horses doing back-to-back rounds then the same five would return to be judged under saddle. The course I set was very straightforward. The first single jump was set on the quarter line off a right turn headed toward the in gate, then up a seven-stride diagonal line away from the gate. (The ring was 285 feet long by 175 wide so there was lots of room to make bigger distances.) The course finished down the outside line next to the judges to a single diagonal jump and a nicely centered five-stride line headed home. All of the fences had generous amounts of fill with nice wide ground lines on the take off to make the horses jump their best. The second course was a mirror image of the first but set in the opposite direction. Three different course heights were offered 2’, 2’6”, and 3’.
Regardless of how well the jumps were set; there were horses that could not be helped. About 75% were not adequately prepared due to lack of training of both the horse and the rider. The others were good riders on green horses, or good horses with green riders. The top 6 were good in both ways and the best score of 86 tells that it is hard to put a high score together with only 9 months of training! (Horses received a score between one and a hundred for each performance with a possible total of 300 points. The highest score in the hunters was an 86 and I think that was a fair representation of the quality of the horses that showed.)
The jumpers were asked to perform a flat test, which gave individual scores for each movement, and at the completion of the flat the riders walked on a long rein until they received a whistle to start the initial jumping phase. This jumping tested the horse on a couple of gymnastic exercises followed by a basic eight-jump course. At the completion the rider would wait for the whistle and then proceed into a shortened jump off course. Individual scores for each movement made it hard to standardize what was a good score.
The horse that stood in fourth place after the hunters was the high scoring horse in the jumper ring as well. This horse was a four-year-old, Kentucky-bred Thoroughbred with a local 16-year-old rider who won the Makeover competition for the hunters last year and had placed third in the jumpers. This year was basically a repeat performance and I was so impressed by the girl’s riding I went to the in gate to ask her about her horse. I learned that she had found and trained both horses locally and she sold her makeover horse last year for $30,000! Guess what? She sold her horse at the conclusion of this year’s show for $30,000 to Bernie Traurig.
Horses were priced well below that of a typical show horse in the hunter or jumper rings at an A-rated show. It was at this point that I realized the horses here are a bargain by any standard. Where else can you get a sound, quality horse that has been well started by a professional? A horse that is suitable for it’s discipline. A horse that has the right exposure to start its new career with another rider. A horse that you can watch compete in its discipline, and then try it for yourself or your student. In addition to a competition, the Thoroughbred Makeover is a place to buy quality show horses at an affordable price.
I guess the most important thing I learned from this year’s Makeover is that Thoroughbreds are the most affordable show horse. You don’t need to travel the country roads in Europe, fly your new horse home on an airplane, and go through quarantine to get a really nice horse. It’s become very simple. Go to next year’s Thoroughbred Makeover and bring your horse trailer. You’ll go home with a really nice horse for a heck of a deal.